Even in more “normal” times, it is important that we think about our mental well-being and the mental well-being of others, but this is particularly true right now. We have seen a major increase in mental health challenges due to Covid-19 and the many different ways that it has changed our daily lives. This is true for many adults but is also very prevalent in young people who have had to deal with upheaval at important stages in their education and social development. Many are feeling major pressure around their education and their future and messages about needing to “catch up” can be unhelpful and do not take into account the unique challenges they have overcome. A lot of people in this time have also faced struggles around their physical health, caring for vulnerable family members and bereavement. All of these things can make our mental health challenges more difficult to deal with.
Many of us have been experiencing anxiety directly related to the virus. This can be a major cause of stress and a drain on energy levels if we are constantly dealing with concerns about our own health or the health of our loved ones, particularly where people are clinically vulnerable. It can also be hard to distinguish between the normal, reasonable concerns - which are an appropriate response to the risks posed by the virus - and intrusive thoughts related to our mental health. If concerns about the virus are “taking over” frequently, if you are regularly ‘catastrophising’ (convincing yourself that something terrible is going to happen) and if you are unable to control your feelings of anxiety then it is probably time for you to reach out to someone for help.
For others, our mental health may have been more impacted by the lockdown. It is worth remembering that people are not designed to live this way for long periods of time. We need social contact with others. We need physical contact with others. We need time outside. Right now, we are spending less time getting natural light and fresh air. We are spending more time in front of screens and under artificial light. There are practical limits on our ability to exercise and our normal socialising has been cut back a great deal. Many of us are experiencing loneliness and isolation. Even if we understand that there are good reasons for this and that it is necessary, this is still likely to have an impact on our mental health. Our well-being can also be affected when future plans that we have made have to be cancelled or postponed and we are forced to adjust our expectations to this new reality. This changing of plans can have a jarring effect for many people.
As our national conversation moves tentatively towards the idea of lifting lockdown measures, you might be experiencing anxiety about going out again or being around other people. We have conditioned ourselves to behave in certain ways during this pandemic. We have got used to some things and we may need to re-train our brains. Some of us will have more choice about when and how we return to interacting with other people outside of our homes and some may not, due to their work or their education. If you feel like you are experiencing excessive anxiety or fear about venturing out as restrictions are lifted and places begin to re-open, you may want to consider taking gradual steps. Go for a walk to a public place where you feel comfortable that you can control your social distance from other people. When restrictions allow, try and go a step further and go to a busier area. This is a good way to reintroduce your brain to the idea of being out in the world and, if you begin to feel anxious beyond your control, you can try again another time. This will help to build up tolerance. When you take a big step forward, recognise it and celebrate it.
If you are experiencing any of the mental health challenges outlined above, it is important that you tell someone about this. You may have people close to you who can offer you support. This is a time when many of us are struggling and this might affect how you feel about sharing your burden with others but, if you are having a hard time, it would be a mistake not to share this with somebody. The fact that other people are experiencing problems does not minimise your own problems and needs. If you need help then you need help. We should always err on the side of talking about our mental health and supporting each other.
It may be that you need to access professional help for your mental health. You can explore this with your GP who will be able to connect you to mental health services. Be aware and prepared that this can take time. There are also a whole range of other services and charities that offer advice and support for mental health issues. You can find some links to trusted sources at the end of this article.
I wanted to share some practical things that we can all do to help support our mental health and well-being at this time. You may be doing some of these things already or you may not. These are not a magical cure for all of our problems and they are not a substitute for professional medical support, but hopefully they can help.
Practice Self Awareness: Try to take notice of the feelings and thoughts you are having and why you might be having them. If you are having a particularly bad hour or bad day, try to stop and recognise your feelings. Are you angry, sad or stressed? Is your general mood low? Try and learn what your early warning signs are that tell you when your mental health is at risk of deteriorating. By focussing on your feelings and thoughts, you can also learn to recognise things that may trigger poor mental health for you. When you learn these things about yourself, try to share them with people close to you who can support you.
Control the things you can control: If we are feeling anxious this can sometimes lead to an urge to control everything so that we feel safe and secure. We need to remember that we cannot control certain things like other people’s behaviour. It can help to focus on the parts of situations that we can control, such as our own behaviour. If we know that certain things are likely to make us more anxious, we can try and manage or plan for these things. If you develop strategies that help you to cope with certain situations or environments, consider sharing these with key people such as teachers, youth workers or employers.
Be kind to yourself: This might be the most important thing for all of us if we have a diagnosed mental health condition, or we suspect that we might, then in most cases this is related to a chemical imbalance that is affecting the way that our brain works. Poor mental health is not a weakness or a moral failing. It is not something we need to feel embarrassed or ashamed of. If you are struggling right now or you have struggled in the past,remember to be kind to yourself and do not blame yourself. Do not force yourself to be as productive or as energetic as you would be in normal circumstances. If you didn’t learn yoga today or learn a new language or start writing your novel then that’s ok. Ignore pushy social media posts that issue challenges to you about learning to code or working on your “Summer body”. Focus on small things and reach out to other people where you can. You are living through an unprecedented time and you are focusing on surviving then that is enough.
Look after your well-being: Sometimes, doing the basic things to support our well-being can make a massive difference. This list should not be used as a way for us to judge or place additional pressure on ourselves, but if you can pick up an easy win in one of the following areas then it may help a lot:
Are you getting enough sleep? Insufficient sleep can have a major impact on mental health and can make existing problems worse. Is your sleep pattern itself a source of anxiety for you? Try to find a plan or a routine to help with this and involve other people to help you stick to it.
Are you eating well? Are you drinking enough? Diet and hydration can impact our mood.
Is your time in front of a screen affecting your ability to concentrate or causing you headaches? Is screen time making your sleep suffer?
Are you getting active enough and taking physical exercise? Spending time outside, particularly among nature, can have a major positive impact on our mental wellbeing.
Vitamin D. There has been a lot of information published recently about the importance of vitamin D, this is a vitamin that we get from sunlight being absorbed through our skin which many of us are deficient in. It is recommended that most people need to take supplements of vitamin D through the Winter when days are shorter and this is even more important while we are spending so much time at home.
Be kind to yourself: This might be the most important thing for all of us if we have a diagnosed mental health condition, or we suspect that we might, then in most cases this is related to a chemical imbalance that is affecting the way that our brain works
If you would like to discuss any of the topics covered in this article or know someone else who you feel might need support, please get in touch with Oxygen by email or through our social media channels.
Mind - a national mental health charity (includes specific pages on mental health and Coronavirus) - https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/
Young Minds - Mental health charity for children and young people (includes specific pages on mental health and Coronavirus) - https://youngminds.org.uk/
NHS website - outlines accessing mental health services - https://www.nhs.uk/using-the-nhs/nhs-services/mental-health-services/how-to-access-mental-health-services/
iCope (Kingston NHS) - local portal to access support and therapies in Kingston - https://www.icope.nhs.uk/kingston/
NHS website - information and advice on vitamin D https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/vitamin-d/
BUPA - article on post-lockdown anxiety
Kingston Bereavement Service - Local service offering support, advice and counselling for people experiencing bereavement - https://www.kingstonbereavementservice.org.uk/